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SPLC demands Alabama school district end discriminatory practices

The SPLC demanded today that the superintendent of Fort Payne, Ala., schools end discriminatory enrollment practices after a Latino student was turned away from a high school and missed almost a semester.

It’s a moment that often makes J.T. uncomfortable: The moment someone asks him why he isn’t in school.

“It makes me feel like I dropped out,” J.T. said. “It’s like I have nothing to accomplish. I just feel worthless.”

But the 17-year-old Latino didn’t drop out of school. In fact, earlier this year, he twice attempted to enroll in Fort Payne High School in northeast Alabama but was denied entry. He has missed almost an entire semester of school as a result. His plans to join the military this summer have been thrown off course as well.

“I can’t believe I’m just wasting time,” he said.

The SPLC demanded today that the superintendent of Fort Payne schools end the discriminatory enrollment practices keeping J.T. out of school.

In a letter to Superintendent Jim Cunningham, the SPLC described how the student was denied enrollment in violation of federal laws that bar discrimination based on national origin, immigration status or limited English proficiency. The SPLC has demanded that the district enroll J.T. by April 14.

“Fort Payne school officials have stood in the way of our client getting an education simply because he was born in Mexico,” said Caren Short, SPLC staff attorney. “These discriminatory practices have already cost our client valuable class time. It must stop.”

J.T. attempted to enroll on Jan. 31 after moving to Alabama. The teen, who came to the United States from Mexico when he was a year old, brought a completed enrollment application, proof of residency in the school district, an immunization record and a Social Security card, according to the letter.

The principal did not even look at the documents. After J.T. said he had to make up two failed classes from the previous year, the principal said he couldn’t enroll him. This excuse has no basis in district or state education policy. It even violates the nondiscrimination policies of the Alabama Department of Education and the district.

J.T.’s Spanish-speaking parents believe the family encountered this discrimination because – unlike their son – they don’t speak English. The high school principal wouldn’t even give the teen the time to interpret the principal’s words for his stepfather.

“I felt helpless to help my son,” J.T.’s stepfather said through an interpreter. “I couldn’t express myself.”

When the family met with the superintendent later that day in a last-ditch effort to enroll J.T., they were told the principal was not obligated to enroll the youth because he is 17. The SPLC’s letter notes that although the state requires children between the ages of 6 and 17 to attend school, it does not grant the right to deny a child enrollment simply because he or she is 17.

The superintendent said the principal would have to check the youth’s records and call him with a decision on enrollment. After the family left the district office building, J.T. finished explaining to his parents what had happened. The family returned to the building because the teen planned to beg to be enrolled.

“I felt really frustrated,” J.T. said. “I was really upset and sad.”

The family was not allowed to see the superintendent. His office also refused to provide a written notice explaining why J.T. had been denied enrollment. The family has not heard from the principal or district officials since these meetings, costing the youth almost an entire semester of school and ultimately deferring his plans for the future.

The teen is at a loss as he watches time slip by.

J.T., who enjoys science and history but found his calling in the military after joining the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps., describes a range of emotions from sadness and confusion to utter exasperation with the behavior of Fort Payne school officials. His family also doesn’t understand how men who have supposedly dedicated their lives to educating children can demonstrate such reckless disregard for a student’s future.

“I’m disappointed and frustrated with the attitude of the superintendent,” J.T.’s mother said through an interpreter. “The superintendent is supposed to solve these problems. All he did was wash his hands of it.”

Schools receiving federal money cannot discriminate against or exclude students on the basis of race, color or national origin, according to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 30 years ago in Plyler v. Doe that it is unconstitutional to deny a child present in the United States the right to attend public elementary and secondary schools based on immigration status.

“What I ask and what I demand as a father is that justice be done,” J.T.’s stepfather said. “I know this isn’t just happening to my son. We’re speaking publicly about this so it doesn’t keep happening with impunity.”

Protecting all students

The SPLC has taken steps to prevent other children from being discouraged from enrolling in Fort Payne schools as well. The letter to the superintendent describes two other matters that potentially chill student enrollment in the district. The school district’s enrollment form requests a student’s Social Security number, but does not make it clear that by law providing the number is voluntary and that no student will be denied enrollment. The SPLC has urged the district to update the enrollment form to comply with federal law.

Before the start of this school year, the state superintendent of education sent a memo to local school districts that provided guidance for complying with federal law when requesting the number. The memo was sent after the SPLC found that out of a sample of 124 enrollment forms representing 81 Alabama school districts, no district complied with the legal requirements for requesting Social Security numbers.

The Fort Payne school district’s website also includes a memo in English and Spanish that says a provision of the state’s anti-immigrant law requires students to provide a birth certificate to complete enrollment. Though the website explains this provision has since been blocked by the courts and is no longer enforced, this information is provided only in English. The SPLC has directed the district to remove the outdated memo from the website and provide a notice in Spanish and English about the provision being blocked.

As for J.T.’s parents, they hope their son will soon be attending class at Fort Payne High School. It’s a critical step for his future.

“What we want is for him to follow his dreams,” his mother said.